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Washington, D.C. on a Budget with Kids

Updated on July 9, 2018
iijuan12 profile image

I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 8.

Visiting the Capitol
Visiting the Capitol

Before heading to Washington, D.C. for 5 days with my family, I researched as much as I could in order to make the most of our time and money. Below you'll find our schedule for our 5 day trip and all the helpful tips I found out ahead of time on food, parking, and more! (Thank you, fellow members of the Classical Conversations Facebook group!) I am also including our favorite children's books, guide books, and YouTube videos we used while preparing for our trip.

If you could only visit one place in Washington, D.C., where would you go?

If you could only visit one place in Washington, D.C., where would you go?

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Day 1

Museum of the Bible, National Air & Space Museum, National Museum American Indian, Botanic Gardens, & National Gallery of Art, East

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Checking out the 1903 Wright Flyer at the National Air & Space Museum - Did you know the museum almost didn't acquire this piece because of a dispute over who was the first inventor of the airplane: them or Mr. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian?Learning how olive oil used to be made in the Christ-era Israeli village at the Museum of the BibleOn sunny days numerous rainbows glide across this atrium at the National Museum of the American Indian.The Botanic Gardens offers numerous picturesque settings.The blue chicken on the top of the National Gallery of Art East was the favorite art piece of my youngest children.
Checking out the 1903 Wright Flyer at the National Air & Space Museum - Did you know the museum almost didn't acquire this piece because of a dispute over who was the first inventor of the airplane: them or Mr. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian?
Checking out the 1903 Wright Flyer at the National Air & Space Museum - Did you know the museum almost didn't acquire this piece because of a dispute over who was the first inventor of the airplane: them or Mr. Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian?
Learning how olive oil used to be made in the Christ-era Israeli village at the Museum of the Bible
Learning how olive oil used to be made in the Christ-era Israeli village at the Museum of the Bible
On sunny days numerous rainbows glide across this atrium at the National Museum of the American Indian.
On sunny days numerous rainbows glide across this atrium at the National Museum of the American Indian.
The Botanic Gardens offers numerous picturesque settings.
The Botanic Gardens offers numerous picturesque settings.
The blue chicken on the top of the National Gallery of Art East was the favorite art piece of my youngest children.
The blue chicken on the top of the National Gallery of Art East was the favorite art piece of my youngest children.

Museum of Bible - (2 hours but could have spent longer) - This was wonderful getting to see all the ancient artifacts, manuscripts of the Bible, and a village recreated to look like one that Jesus might have gone through! If we had more time, I would have loved to have spent a day there to let my children watch the Drive Through History videos that are showing in most of the rooms. We finished with my children's favorite: the best children's play area of all the museums. Make sure to notice the collection of fragments that purport to be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls (the authenticity of some of them are still in question -- which is noted at the museum), 1542 Latin Bible signed by Martin Luther, the first edition King James Bible New Testaments (only 2 are known to exist), and the 1592 Bible owned by William Bradford.

National Air & Space Museum - (2 hours) - If I was visiting for only one day, I would skip this one. While the museum was nice, we have seen more extensive displays. Make sure to notice the 1903 Wright Flyer, Spirit of St. Louis, and Lockheed Vega 5B. (If you are hoping to see the rest of the collection of the museum's planes, you can view them at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, which is free to enter but parking costs $15.) Tip: The museum has a free planetarium show at 10:30 am. It requires a free ticket, but they go fast. Also, the museum has a side entrance you can use to avoid longer lines at the front if needed.

National Museum American Indian - (1 hour) - I was pleasantly surprised by all that was included in this museum that includes numerous recreations of tribal villages and lots of Indian artifacts. Even though the building is enormous, it is mostly empty space. Tip: On sunny days you can see rainbows spill across the floor and walls of the atrium thanks to prisms set high in a south window.

Botanic Gardens- (less than 1 hour) - This was beautiful! It's filled with a wide variety of orchids and other plants. I thought it was pretty close to the Atlanta Botanic Gardens. Since it has large greenhouse, you can view this in any type of weather. Tip: If you contact the Botanic Gardens ahead of time, they provide free explorers backpacks for your kids to use while there. They includes a magnifying glass, ruler, various samples including cacao, vanilla, etc, and a field journal with things to spot and activities to accomplish (such as measuring 2 species of bamboo to see which is thicker). The bags do have to be returned.

National Gallery of Art, East - (less than 1 hour) - We all agreed we could have skipped this museum had we been short on time. It mostly contains the modern art of the National Gallery of Art. If you are a fan of Alexander Calder, they do have a nice collection of his pieces on the top floor. My children enjoyed the blue chicken in the atrium at the top of the building and also locating a few of the photos they had seen in the children's picture book, Don't Take a Balloon into the National Gallery of Art.


Day 2

White House, White House Visitor Center, Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, West, National Archives, & Museum of Natural History

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Strolling through the Red Room at the White House Studying the architecture of the Library of Congress while on the tour  Make sure to notice the Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress. It is one of only five in the entire world that is both complete and written on Vellum. One of the many famous paintings we enjoyed viewing at the National Gallery of Art, WestSince the National Archives does not allow any photography inside, we took one outside the building.This photo from the brochure of the National Archives shows you the room in which the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence are found. At the Museum of Natural History, my children immediately recognized the huge bull elephant from the "Night at the Museum" movie.......though my older children (and husband) were equally mesmerized by the extensive gemstone collection.
Strolling through the Red Room at the White House
Strolling through the Red Room at the White House
Studying the architecture of the Library of Congress while on the tour
Studying the architecture of the Library of Congress while on the tour
Make sure to notice the Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress. It is one of only five in the entire world that is both complete and written on Vellum.
Make sure to notice the Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress. It is one of only five in the entire world that is both complete and written on Vellum.
One of the many famous paintings we enjoyed viewing at the National Gallery of Art, West
One of the many famous paintings we enjoyed viewing at the National Gallery of Art, West
Since the National Archives does not allow any photography inside, we took one outside the building.
Since the National Archives does not allow any photography inside, we took one outside the building.
This photo from the brochure of the National Archives shows you the room in which the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence are found.
This photo from the brochure of the National Archives shows you the room in which the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence are found.
At the Museum of Natural History, my children immediately recognized the huge bull elephant from the "Night at the Museum" movie....
At the Museum of Natural History, my children immediately recognized the huge bull elephant from the "Night at the Museum" movie....
...though my older children (and husband) were equally mesmerized by the extensive gemstone collection.
...though my older children (and husband) were equally mesmerized by the extensive gemstone collection.

White House - (1 hour of waiting time + 30 minutes inside) - Getting into the White House takes some advanced planning. Four months before we headed to Washington, D.C., we put in a request with our congressmen to tour the White House. A month later we got an email that requested additional information which had to be returned almost immediately or your request would be canceled. A couple weeks before our trip, we contacted our congressman's office again, and they promptly sent us a day and time for our self-guided tour. You can take a camera and wallet into the White House but not much else (not even your purse, water, or stroller). To get there we parked at the far end of the Mall (only $2/hr.) and walked. You only get to walk into 5 rooms, and all but 2 rooms are self-led. We read up ahead of time on what we'd see in those rooms as there are of course no information placards. You can ask the secret service agents questions. I wish I had encouraged my children to each come up with a question to ask ahead of time.

White House Visitor Center - (10 minutes) - Since it is across the street from the White House, we popped into this small museum that contains a few artifacts. If you're passing by, it is worth stopping in, but I personally would not recommend going out of my way to visit it.

Library of Congress- (a bit more than 1 hour) - There are a few tours you can request to arrange with your congressmen, and this is one of them. Our guide talked about the significance of the architecture and art. Unfortunately she was rather soft-spoken, so we could barely hear most of what she said. My husband and I both agreed we should have skipped this tour. You can still enter the library even if you do not have a scheduled tour. Make sure to notice the Gutenberg Bible. Tip: Often, the security line at Library of Congress is shorter than the Capitol building. They are connected via tunnel, so enter the Library of Congress first. Use the tunnel to get to the Capitol to save time. The Capitol building does not allow any drinks or food, and they will make you throw them away if you have them when trying to enter through the tunnel.

National Gallery of Art, West - (2 hours but could have spent longer) - There are so many famous paintings in this building! In each room I told my children to look for the one with a "Director's Tour" badge next to it as it was definitely a famous one. Sometimes I asked my children to point to the prettiest dress in the room or to select which landscape would make the best vacation. My youngest ones searched for dogs. The museum offers free tours. You can stay for part of them and leave easily, which is what we did. Make sure to notice Leonardo da Vinci's painting Ginevra de' Benci as it is his only painting in America. Look at the back of the painting as well as it is painted on both sides of the canvas.

National Archives - (40 minutes waiting + 30 minutes inside) - After so much walking, this provided a nice opportunity to sit and rest on the wall as we waited in line for about 40 minutes to get inside the building. Since there seems to always be a line, it might have been better for us to have scheduled this earlier in the day when the line might have been shorter. If you are limited in time, consider buying a timed-entry ticket that is only $1.50/person so you can bypass the line to get inside. Make sure to notice the Magna Carta and also the other galleries that include rotating documents such as declassified documents, patent applications, or the homestead file of Charles Ingalls (from the Little House on the Prairie series).

Museum of Natural History (2 hours) - This was probably the most crowded museum. My children loved seeing the animals and rocks. We skipped the large section on evolution. Make sure to notice the Hope Diamond. I also thought the mummified bull was neat to see as I've never seen one among the numerous Egyptian displays I have seen. The bottom floor has a nice bird display, which you might miss if you enter on the level with the elephant. Tip #1: The butterfly exhibit is free on Tuesdays (normally $7), but timed-entry tickets are required. Get the tickets at the Butterfly Pavilion box office beginning at 10 am. The tickets go fast! Tip #2: The museum has 2 entrances: one facing the mall and one diagonal from the National Archives. If you arrive just after a busload of 4th graders, you might want to head to the other entrance.

Day 3

Tour Bus, National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Ford's Theatre and Museum, Monuments, Embassy Row, Dupont Circle, National Cathedral, & Monuments at Night

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Did you know the Lincoln Memorial is at the top of the list of "Things to Do in Washington, D.C." on Tripadvisor .com? Our experience with DC Trails was quite disappointing, but maybe if we had started our tour with our last bus guide, our opinion would be different.The National Portrait Gallery provided the perfect opportunity to review all the American history topics we have covered this year. So many of the portraits here are the ones we see in children's books and textbooks. The Smithsonian Museum of American Art is connected to the National Portrait Gallery and has a number of beautiful paintings like this one. I was not as familiar with many of the artists at this gallery.The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art are connected by this wonderful courtyard, which includes a small water area. This is where we ate our picnic lunch.The small museum under Ford's Theatre includes the gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.My older children enjoyed reading the walls of the Jefferson Memorial. Did you know the original statue was cast in plaster & painted to look bronze to preserve the metals needed during WWII? After the war, the statue was replaced with a bronze one.Supposedly Robert E. Lee's face was chiseled into the back of Lincoln's head because they'd been close friends. Also notice the word "FUTURE" in the inaugural address on right hand side of the wall. It was mistakenly carved as “EUTURE.”We had some fun with the Washington Monument while waiting for our bus.Did you know the juniper bushes at the Korean War Memorial represent the obstacles the soldiers encountered? If you stand at the memorial's flagpole & look through the 3 statues in the adjacent woods, it appears as though there are many soldiers. The National Cathedral, an Episcopalian church, is the 2nd largest cathedral in the US and the 6th largest in the world. If you want to view the Darth Vader Grotesque on the northwest tower, bring binoculars. Notice the cherry blossoms!My younger children were most fascinated by the Space Window, which contains a rock from the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. It was donated by the crew of Apollo 11. The window was sponsored by a former director of NASA.
Did you know the Lincoln Memorial is at the top of the list of "Things to Do in Washington, D.C." on Tripadvisor .com?
Did you know the Lincoln Memorial is at the top of the list of "Things to Do in Washington, D.C." on Tripadvisor .com?
Our experience with DC Trails was quite disappointing, but maybe if we had started our tour with our last bus guide, our opinion would be different.
Our experience with DC Trails was quite disappointing, but maybe if we had started our tour with our last bus guide, our opinion would be different.
The National Portrait Gallery provided the perfect opportunity to review all the American history topics we have covered this year. So many of the portraits here are the ones we see in children's books and textbooks.
The National Portrait Gallery provided the perfect opportunity to review all the American history topics we have covered this year. So many of the portraits here are the ones we see in children's books and textbooks.
The Smithsonian Museum of American Art is connected to the National Portrait Gallery and has a number of beautiful paintings like this one. I was not as familiar with many of the artists at this gallery.
The Smithsonian Museum of American Art is connected to the National Portrait Gallery and has a number of beautiful paintings like this one. I was not as familiar with many of the artists at this gallery.
The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art are connected by this wonderful courtyard, which includes a small water area. This is where we ate our picnic lunch.
The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art are connected by this wonderful courtyard, which includes a small water area. This is where we ate our picnic lunch.
The small museum under Ford's Theatre includes the gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
The small museum under Ford's Theatre includes the gun John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
My older children enjoyed reading the walls of the Jefferson Memorial. Did you know the original statue was cast in plaster & painted to look bronze to preserve the metals needed during WWII? After the war, the statue was replaced with a bronze one.
My older children enjoyed reading the walls of the Jefferson Memorial. Did you know the original statue was cast in plaster & painted to look bronze to preserve the metals needed during WWII? After the war, the statue was replaced with a bronze one.
Supposedly Robert E. Lee's face was chiseled into the back of Lincoln's head because they'd been close friends. Also notice the word "FUTURE" in the inaugural address on right hand side of the wall. It was mistakenly carved as “EUTURE.”
Supposedly Robert E. Lee's face was chiseled into the back of Lincoln's head because they'd been close friends. Also notice the word "FUTURE" in the inaugural address on right hand side of the wall. It was mistakenly carved as “EUTURE.”
We had some fun with the Washington Monument while waiting for our bus.
We had some fun with the Washington Monument while waiting for our bus.
Did you know the juniper bushes at the Korean War Memorial represent the obstacles the soldiers encountered? If you stand at the memorial's flagpole & look through the 3 statues in the adjacent woods, it appears as though there are many soldiers.
Did you know the juniper bushes at the Korean War Memorial represent the obstacles the soldiers encountered? If you stand at the memorial's flagpole & look through the 3 statues in the adjacent woods, it appears as though there are many soldiers.
The National Cathedral, an Episcopalian church, is the 2nd largest cathedral in the US and the 6th largest in the world. If you want to view the Darth Vader Grotesque on the northwest tower, bring binoculars. Notice the cherry blossoms!
The National Cathedral, an Episcopalian church, is the 2nd largest cathedral in the US and the 6th largest in the world. If you want to view the Darth Vader Grotesque on the northwest tower, bring binoculars. Notice the cherry blossoms!
My younger children were most fascinated by the Space Window, which contains a rock from the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. It was donated by the crew of Apollo 11. The window was sponsored by a former director of NASA.
My younger children were most fascinated by the Space Window, which contains a rock from the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. It was donated by the crew of Apollo 11. The window was sponsored by a former director of NASA.

Hop on/off Tour Bus - (1 1/2 hours) - A number of people suggested starting the trip with a Hop On/Off Bus Tour and staying on the bus for a full loop to hear all about the city without having to wear out our legs. We got a Groupon for DC Trails, which starts at 9 am before the museums open. I would not recommend them! Our guide mainly told us the hours of operation of the buildings as we passed by. I was so disappointed! The second guide was not much better. At the end of the day we did have an older man as our guide, and he actually shared stories and historical information. I wish we had been on his bus to begin with! The DC Trails buses took about 45 minutes to arrive at a hop on/off destination as they only had 4 buses in service, and their arrival app times were inaccurate. While waiting for one of the buses, another family did share that they thought the night tour was worthwhile. Tips: Old Town Trolley Tours had the most buses in service followed by Big Bus. If you are simply looking for transportation, stick with the Circulator bus (only $1/ride or less if you get a daily pass) or Uber.

National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian Museum of American Art - (2 hours) - We were able to review quite a bit of American History while walking through these two museums, which are connected by a fabulous courtyard. The courtyard is covered and has a small water area for the kids to play in. It is the perfect spot for a picnic lunch! Tip: Do note that this museum does not open until 11:30 am.

Ford's Theatre and Museum - (10 minutes) - Because they were preparing for a show, we were not allowed to enter the theater. Had we come earlier in the day, we would have been able to enter it. I guess we should have called first to find that out. They did require timed tickets, but there was no line. We just walked up to the ticket booth, got the tickets, and handed them to the park ranger. The museum in the basement is rather small. It has the gun Booth used to kill Lincoln, a pillow with Lincoln's blood on it, and a few other items. The house across the street is currently closed for renovations. I personally would not go out of my way to visit this, but it is worth stopping by if you are in the area.

Monuments: Jefferson, Lincoln, & Korean War Memorial (10 minutes at each) - I'd planned for us to use the bus tour to get off at more of the monuments, but the inconsistent bus arrival times made us decide to limit our stops. We got off and on at the Jefferson Memorial and then off and on for the last time at the Lincoln Memorial, which is right next to the Korean War Memorial. If I could do this over again, I would have had us head here around 8 am and park at the metered parking next to the Lincoln Memorial. Then we could have walked the loop around to see most of the monuments before the museums opened. Tip #1:Visit the National Park Service Booths to get free Junior Ranger Program booklets for the kids that make the monuments more meaningful (and are simply fun to fill out). Tip #2: The Einstein Statue is across the street from the Vietnam Memorial. If you look down at the floor, all the metal spots are stars that make up our solar system. If you stand directly in the center of the circle and face Einstein and talk in a normal tone, your voice will echo back to you but nobody else around you can hear it. It is also probably the only sculpture in the city that children are allowed to climb on.

Embassy Row & Dupont Circle - As we were driving to and from the National Cathedral, we enjoyed seeing the various flags and statues along Embassy Row. We also noted Dupoint Circle, which was designed by the same men who created the Lincoln Memorial.

National Cathedral (1 hour) - We attended an Evensong service (starting at 5:30 pm), which included the choir singing and the organ playing. At the end of the brief Episcopalian service, we all sang Amazing Grace. Afterward, a sweet and friendly church member invited us to their church dinner and gave our children a personal tour of the cathedral. Wow, that was so nice of her! This was a delightful way to end the day! Check their website for service and free concert information. Make sure to notice the Space Window (which includes a piece of the moon), the clear piece of glass in the rose window (to remind us that God is still creating), and the main pulpit (at which Martin Luther King preached just before he was assassinated).

Monuments at night (30 minutes) - A number of people recommended viewing the monuments when they are lit up at night. My children agreed that the Korean War Memorial looks rather creepy as the soldiers look like ghosts. The Lincoln Memorial was also beautiful to see lit up in the darkness. The Vietnam, Roosevelt, and WWII are also lit up nicely at night.


Day 4

National Zoological Park, Peirce Mill, Hillwood Estates, Phillips Collection, National Arboretum, The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, & National Museum of American History

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Hillwood Estates contains a gorgeous collection of Russian pieces of art and jewelry...We enjoyed watching the panda bears eat a tasty breakfast of crunchy bamboo at the National Zoo.The Peirce Mill was a perfect stop since we have recently been studying about the American Industrial Age....in addition to beautifully manicured gardens.My husband & I were divided on our thoughts about the Philip's Collection at which we saw paintings such as this one by Kandinsky. We did, however, agree that the National Arboretum could easily be skipped if you have limited time. We did seek out the Yamaki Bonsai tree, one of the oldest bonsai trees in the world. While the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was beautiful, we agreed we enjoyed the National Cathedral better.Since we had extra time, we headed back to the Mall to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This was Edison's first successful model of a light bulb.
Hillwood Estates contains a gorgeous collection of Russian pieces of art and jewelry...
Hillwood Estates contains a gorgeous collection of Russian pieces of art and jewelry...
We enjoyed watching the panda bears eat a tasty breakfast of crunchy bamboo at the National Zoo.
We enjoyed watching the panda bears eat a tasty breakfast of crunchy bamboo at the National Zoo.
The Peirce Mill was a perfect stop since we have recently been studying about the American Industrial Age.
The Peirce Mill was a perfect stop since we have recently been studying about the American Industrial Age.
...in addition to beautifully manicured gardens.
...in addition to beautifully manicured gardens.
My husband & I were divided on our thoughts about the Philip's Collection at which we saw paintings such as this one by Kandinsky.
My husband & I were divided on our thoughts about the Philip's Collection at which we saw paintings such as this one by Kandinsky.
We did, however, agree that the National Arboretum could easily be skipped if you have limited time. We did seek out the Yamaki Bonsai tree, one of the oldest bonsai trees in the world.
We did, however, agree that the National Arboretum could easily be skipped if you have limited time. We did seek out the Yamaki Bonsai tree, one of the oldest bonsai trees in the world.
While the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was beautiful, we agreed we enjoyed the National Cathedral better.
While the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was beautiful, we agreed we enjoyed the National Cathedral better.
Since we had extra time, we headed back to the Mall to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This was Edison's first successful model of a light bulb.
Since we had extra time, we headed back to the Mall to visit the Smithsonian Museum of American History. This was Edison's first successful model of a light bulb.

National Zoological Park - (1 hour) - We headed to the zoo as soon as it opened at 8 am and got to watch the 3 pandas much on their breakfast lunch of bamboo. It was almost eerie just walking into the zoo without paying a fee and then to not see many people. I think we saw only about 5 people in the first 30 minutes. I read that the parking lots fill up by 10 am, though you can also get metered parking spaces on nearby streets. The zoo is on a hill & the pandas are near the top of the hill, so that's where we started. We only saw a few animals as we were mainly there to see the pandas. Parking costs $25/day, though we left before 9 am and the gates were up with no one to pay. I'm not sure if that's always the case. Make sure to notice the panda bears.

Peirce Mill - (10 minutes) - Because we had time to kill, we stopped by this grist mill, which is on the corner of Rock Creek Park. My children enjoyed seeing the water mill on the old grist mill. We later read that you can go inside after they open at 10 am, and 2 Saturdays a month they have special activities including showing the grist mill in action.

Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens - (2 hours) - Because we can get in free using our NARM museum and AHS garden reciprocal privileges (you can read more about that at my post Free Museum, Zoo, Garden, & Park Tickets) and because it was rated so highly on Tripadvisor .com, we visited this former home of Marjorie Post, who used to be the head of Post cereal and then General Foods Corp. The home includes an extensive collection of Russian art (including Faberge eggs), jewels, and French art. The greenhouse has gorgeous orchids. The gardens were beautiful even though it was mid-March. I can only imagine how beautiful they would be in the spring & summer. I wanted to go on the free tour that lasts an hour, but my husband didn't agree to that. This was one of our favorite places we visited, but I personally would not have wanted to go if it was not on our reciprocal privileges list. Make sure to notice the Faberge eggs, stunning jewelry in her bedroom, and the gorgeous chandelier in the entry way.

Phillips Collection - (30 minutes) - Again, because we can get in free using our NARM museum reciprocal privileges and because it was rated so highly on Tripadvisor .com, we visited this smaller art gallery that has 1-2 pieces from a number of modern artists (Picasso, Monet, Rothko, etc.). It is currently being renovated, so we saw only a small portion of the full collection. My husband and I were divided on whether or not we thought this was worth visiting. He sad it was. I would categorize it as a time-filler considering what you can see at the National Gallery of Art. A plus is that we got a free 2 hour parking space on the street in front of the museum. Make sure to notice Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party.

National Arboretum - (30 minutes) - We all agreed that this was not worth the drive. It was neat to go to, but I would recommend it if you have limited time. Maybe our opinions might have been different if we were there in the spring. My children were fascinated by the concept of them having a tree to represent each state. It is mostly a drive-through type of place with a small Japanese garden area you can walk around. Make sure to notice the Yamaki Pine. At almost 400 years of age, it is one of the world's oldest bonsai trees and is also a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during WW II. My children enjoyed reading a picture book about it before we left for our trip: The Peace Tree From Hiroshima by Sandra Moore.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception - (30 minutes) - We also agreed that this could have been left off our must-see list. It is definitely beautiful and reverent to see. It is the largest Catholic church in America and even has a crypt and some chairs used by Popes when they visited the basilica, which opened up the opportunity to discuss the history of popes with some of my children. Everyone in my family agreed that if we had to choose between visiting the National Cathedral or this basilica, we would all prefer the National Cathedral. The National Cathedral was built in a Gothic style with lots of beautiful stained-glass windows. This basilica feels more modern and focuses more heavily on mosaics. Tip: If you do visit, it might be worthwhile to also stop by the nearby Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America which was built to resemble the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It also offers tours of their catacombs.

National Museum of American History - (1 1/2 hours though we could have spent more) - Because we still had extra time, we parked in the metered parking along the Mall and visited the National Museum of American History. We were all pleasantly surprised and decided we were coming back the next day (which had been our original plan anyway). This was one of our favorite museums. In addition to viewing the Star-Spangled Banner flag, we really enjoyed the top floor exhibit of The Price of Freedom, which focused on American History (mainly through wars) and included numerous historic artifacts and weapons. Make sure to notice the Star-Spangled Banner flag, George Washington’s military uniform, Edison’s first successful light Bulb, Abraham Lincoln's top hat, & the John Bull locomotive. The ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz were being restored when we were visiting.

Day 5

Smithsonian Visitor Center (the Castle), Bureau of Printing & Engraving, Freer | Sackler Galleries, National Museum of American History, the Capitol, & Arlington National Cemetery

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Touring the Rotunda at the Capitol Viewing a selection of exhibits at the Smithsonian CastlePreparing to learn how money is made at the Bureau of Printing & EngravingEnjoying the mostly Asian art & artifacts at the Freer | Sackler Galleries Creating new inventions in the children's play area at the National Museum of American HistoryFinishing up our wonderful week in Washington, D.C.
Touring the Rotunda at the Capitol
Touring the Rotunda at the Capitol
Viewing a selection of exhibits at the Smithsonian Castle
Viewing a selection of exhibits at the Smithsonian Castle
Preparing to learn how money is made at the Bureau of Printing & Engraving
Preparing to learn how money is made at the Bureau of Printing & Engraving
Enjoying the mostly Asian art & artifacts at the Freer | Sackler Galleries
Enjoying the mostly Asian art & artifacts at the Freer | Sackler Galleries
Creating new inventions in the children's play area at the National Museum of American History
Creating new inventions in the children's play area at the National Museum of American History
Finishing up our wonderful week in Washington, D.C.
Finishing up our wonderful week in Washington, D.C.

*My husband first got our timed entry tickets for the Bureau of Printing & Engraving while I unloaded the kids from our vehicle.*

Smithsonian Visitor Center (the Castle) - (20 minutes) - Since it opens at 8:30 am, we headed to the Castle after parking along the Mall and then getting our timed entry tickets for the Bureau of Printing & Engraving. It has a small gifts shop, a few artifacts, and a pretty garden in the back. It also includes a room with a few items from each Smithsonian Museum so that you can get an idea about which museums you might want to visit...or avoid. We chatted briefly with a docent or tour guide who told us there is a tunnel that connects the Castle to the Museum of Natural History, but there isn't one connecting the museums to the National Archives since it's not a Smithsonian Museum. (I guess National Treasure wasn't 100% accurate.) He was also happy to share "true" ghost stories if you would like to hear them.

Bureau of Printing and Engraving - (1 1/2 hours) - To get a tour, you must get timed-entry tickets that morning starting at 8 am. We heard they run out by 9:30 am. I think some of my older children enjoyed the tour. My husband definitely loved it. All I saw were machine parts rolling & printing.

Freer | Sackler Galleries - (45 minutes though we could have spent a touch more time there) - I was again pleasantly surprised by all the Asian artifacts housed in this museum. What I especially loved was that they had numerous signs that were quick to read that taught us a bit about the importance or history of the items. Make sure to notice the Peacock Room.

National Museum of American History - (1 1/2 hours) - Because the museum has a fun children's play area, my kids begged to return. We split up. I took the youngest ones to the play area while the other ones got to see the exhibits we didn't make it to yesterday.

Capitol - (2 hours including waiting time) - This was another tour arranged with our congressman, though you can also show up and schedule one...if you want to wait in a long line. Unfortunately our scheduled tour was in the afternoon on a Friday, so we did not get to see the chambers. The tour was wonderful but rather short. Be sure to visit the museum as it has a few neat artifacts. We pointed out the Supreme Court Building across from the Capitol. Tip #1: You cannot take food (except baby food) or drinks into the Capitol. If you have water bottles, just empty them before going through security. Tip #2: A secretary at the Capitol told us that congressmen/women love for their constitutes to visit when they are in Washington, D.C. You can easily schedule an appointment if they are in their offices. Tip #3: Someone shared that the cafeteria is a great place to buy lunch for a reasonable price (around $5-$8).

Arlington National Cemetery & Pentagon - We drove by as we headed out of town.

Main Sites We Didn't Visit

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Mount VernonTower of Faces at the Holocaust MuseumThe Old Post Office tower in the Trump Hotel offers a beautiful view of the city.Arlington House at Arlington National CemetaryThe Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington
Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon | Source
Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Museum
Tower of Faces at the Holocaust Museum | Source
The Old Post Office tower in the Trump Hotel offers a beautiful view of the city.
The Old Post Office tower in the Trump Hotel offers a beautiful view of the city. | Source
Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetary
Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetary | Source
The Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington
The Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington | Source

While talking with various families as we waiting in lines, we asked what their favorites sites had been. Two places kept coming up: Mount Vernon and the Holocaust Museum. Mount Vernon does charge an entry fee, though they offer significantly discounted rates at their annual Homeschool Day (in March). The Holocaust Museum requires timed entry tickets and has long lines! Because we have a couple sensitive children, we opted to not go.

Since the Washington Monument was still under renovation while we were there, I thought about heading over to the Old Post Office (now the Trump Hotel) to get a free scenic view of the city from its 315 foot clock tower. It is not crowded as it is a bit out of the way of other places. You can also see the bells of Congress.

I had also planned for us to drive through the Arlington National Cemetery and past the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Monument) though we unfortunately never did. Other than that, I think we were quite satisfied with what we saw and did during our five days in our nation's capital.

Planning a Schedule

My hand-drawn map helped me get my bearings on where places were located. I included the top-rated places from TripAdvisor on the green sticky note.
My hand-drawn map helped me get my bearings on where places were located. I included the top-rated places from TripAdvisor on the green sticky note.

I was so overwhelmed at the thought of planning out our trip until I ordered the free map from https://washington.org/visitors-guide. Then I drew out the city, including only the places I thought we might want to go. Now I knew which buildings were next to other buildings, which reduces unnecessary walking. I also checked TripAdvisor and tried to make sure we included most of the activities at the top of their list of "Things to Do in Washington, D.C."

Can You Walk Everywhere?

Ready to walk to the next museum
Ready to walk to the next museum

Yes, I knew everything looked closer on the map than it did in real life, but I wanted to know ahead of time if we'd be able to walk everywhere. Yes and no. We were able to walk around the Capitol, the National Mall museums, the National Archives, the Holocaust Museum, and the National Archives. The White House is able to be reached by walking, though we did not ever make that walk. I don't think the monuments are within walking distance of the Capitol. If you parked next to the Lincoln Memorial and walked the loop, it would probably be able 3 miles, which I think is doable.

Finding a Place to Stay

The townhouse we rented while staying in Washington, D.C.
The townhouse we rented while staying in Washington, D.C.

This was by far our largest expense. Through vrbo .com, we rented a unit of this townhouse, which included a permit to park in the street. It was only a few blocks away from the Capitol, so we could walk to the Capitol and the Mall. If we had a smaller family and only had to rent one hotel room, a hotel room would probably have been a better option. By renting a unit/apartment, we also did not have to pay all the usual hotel fees. We also had free access to a washer and dryer and dishwasher. Plus, I was able to cook meals.

Food

Picnic lunches
Picnic lunches

Here is where we saved the most money. We did not eat out during our stay in Washington, D.C. I brought all the food from home in a cooler, but we found out there is a Walmart near the Capitol. The prices there were the same as the prices in FL. There is also an Aldi there, though we never went to it.

Breakfast: Each morning I offered a hearty breakfast so my children wouldn't start begging for food 30 minutes later. I baked French Toast Bites (freezer section at Walmart) and bacon (on a pan in the oven). We also had hard-boiled eggs, clementines, salad mix (yes, I made my kids eat veggies for breakfast), & OJ.

Lunch: We packed our diaper bag with lunch and snack items that were easy to eat as we were walking from one museum to the next. Because my family will rarely eat sandwiches, we mainly ate cold pizza (the frozen kind that I baked the night before, cut up, put in baggies, & stored overnight in the refrigerator). I also brought sliced apples, baby carrots, almonds, trail mix, and granola bars. We each had our own water bottle.

Can you take this food into the museums? Yes! They have signs up saying that you can't take food or drinks in there, but I think they mean open food. We never had an issue taking in our lunch that was in closed containers in a closed bag under our stroller. The exceptions are the White House & the Capitol. You can't take food or drinks in either building.

Snacks: I tried to have a special snack to serve after each museum in the afternoon. Favorites were granola bars, bagged chips, and gummy fruit. Those aren't normal foods for my kids, so they were excited about the special treats.

Dinner: Ahead of time I had my children each pick a meal they wanted to have that was quick to prepare. Each night we had grapes (on sale at Aldi), salad mix, and a main dish: chili, tacos, hot dogs, spaghetti (prepared ahead of time & reheated in the microwave). For dessert we had cookies, though after we visited the Walmart, we had ice cream.

Another great idea that I read from someone's blog is that they brought a crock pot with them to their hotel room. They put the ingredients in the crock pot in the morning before they left, and had a one-pot meal ready for them when they returned in the evening. They used the bath tub to wash it out each night, though they also could have used the crock pot plastic liners.

Parking & Public Transportation

We did find parking spaces along the National Mall.
We did find parking spaces along the National Mall.
  • We were able to park our 12 passenger van along the Mall in metered parking spaces. The key is to arrive at least 15 minutes before 10 am, when the museums open. It costs $2/hour and you can pay for up to 3 hours at a time. If you want more time, just download the app and refill your time using your phone app.
  • Use a parking app. Use Parking Panda for the best rates on downtown parking. For street parking use the Park Mobile App and you can find 2-4 hour parking on most city streets before 4pm for about $3-4/hour.
  • National Zoo parking is $25. Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum costs $15.
  • Metro Pass for 7 days is $35. To ride DC Metro, you can load a farecard with money, or order a "SmarTrip" card, which deducts per ride or comes with 1- or 7-day unlimited travel (order in advance of your trip).
  • Circulator bus costs $1 per ride and is a good way to get around the Mall. Children 5 & under are free. Ride all you want by purchasing unlimited-trip passes before you board. One-Day ($3), 3-Day ($7), Weekly ($11). Strollers larger than 48×24, such as most jogging strollers, are not be allowed on buses.
  • If you reserve your parking place in a lot ahead of time online, the cost is almost half.
  • If you have a large van, a great place to park is on S. Capitol Street, directly UNDERNEATH 395 overpass. (It is one of the outer lots for the Nationals.) It is an open air lot and has a flat rate of $8-10 per day. It is a short walk to the Capitol Hill Metro station, so you can easily catch the metro down to the other end of the Mall if needed. You can reserve/pay for parking ahead of time on Parking Panda dot com.

What to Do Before the Museums Open & After They Close

The National Portrait Gallery is one of the locations that has late hours.
The National Portrait Gallery is one of the locations that has late hours.

Almost every place is open from 10 am - 5 pm or 5:30 pm, so it's helpful to know what is open early and late if you're trying to cram in as much as you can into your trip. *All times are for the month of March. Hours may change during the summer.*

Open Early and/or Late:

Monuments: Always open
Zoo: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Rock Creek Park (next to zoo): 6am-7pm
Arlington National Cemetery: 8am-5pm (Oct-March)
National Catherdal: Evening services some nights
Library of Congress: 8:30am-4:30pm
Basilica National Shrine of Immaculate Conception: 7am-7pm
National Arboretum: 8am-5pm
White House Visitor Center: 7:30am-4pm
Bureau of Engraving & Printing 9-10:45am & 12:30-2pm
Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Garden: 8am-4pm
Smithsonian Institution Visitor’s Center: 8:30am-5:30pm
Philips Collection: Open late on Thursdays (8:30pm)
National Portrait Gallery: 11:30am-7pm


Our Favorite Children's Picture Books & Guide Books

Our Favorite Picture Book About Washington, D.C.

My Washington, DC
My Washington, DC

We read through so many picture books on Washington, D.C. This was by far my favorite. It follows two children as they visit the main sites of the city. The book has gorgeous illustrations and includes the main attractions of each site.

 

More Great Picture Books We Enjoyed

Click thumbnail to view full-size
This is Washington, D.C. by Miroslav Sasek (Book images are from amazon .com.)N Is for Our Nation's Capital by Marie SmithS is for Smithsonian by Roland SmithLarry Gets Lost in Washington, DC by John SkewesThe Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington, D.C. by Candice RansomThe Peace Tree From Hiroshima by Sandra MooreEliza's Cherry Trees : Japan's Gift To America by Andrea Griffing Zimmerman
This is Washington, D.C. by Miroslav Sasek (Book images are from amazon .com.)
This is Washington, D.C. by Miroslav Sasek (Book images are from amazon .com.)
N Is for Our Nation's Capital by Marie Smith
N Is for Our Nation's Capital by Marie Smith
S is for Smithsonian by Roland Smith
S is for Smithsonian by Roland Smith
Larry Gets Lost in Washington, DC by John Skewes
Larry Gets Lost in Washington, DC by John Skewes
The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington, D.C. by Candice Ransom
The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington, D.C. by Candice Ransom
The Peace Tree From Hiroshima by Sandra Moore
The Peace Tree From Hiroshima by Sandra Moore
Eliza's Cherry Trees : Japan's Gift To America by Andrea Griffing Zimmerman
Eliza's Cherry Trees : Japan's Gift To America by Andrea Griffing Zimmerman

Book List: More Picture Books We Read About Washington, D.C.

This is Washington, D.C. by Miroslav Sasek is a classic book written in the 1950s that describes the main sites of the city. It has been republished and updated to include what has changed since the book was first written. N Is for Our Nation's Capital by Marie Smith and S is for Smithsonian by Roland Smith both use the alphabet as a theme to go through the main sites. Each page has a short blurb, perfect for younger children, and a descriptive paragraph if you would like to read more about it. The illustrations are beautiful. I was kind of disappointed by their selections for some of the letters as they focus more on modern agendas rather than historic sites. Larry Gets Lost in Washington, DC by John Skewes is just for fun and follows a dog who gets lost in the city and stops by the main sites as he looks for his master. My younger children love that it features a dog. The Twelve Days of Christmas in Washington, D.C. by Candice Ransom follows two children as they visit 12 locations in the city. On the Loose in Washington, D.C. by Sage Stossel is like "Where's Waldo" with various animals hidden in cute scenes of main sites in the city. We also enjoyed Washington, D.C. : A Scrapbook by Laura Lee Benson, Capital!: Washington D.C. from A to Z by Laura Krauss Melmed, Clifford Goes To Washington Norman Bridwell (for my youngest ones), The Peace Tree From Hiroshima by Sandra Moore, and Eliza's Cherry Trees : Japan's Gift To America by Andrea Griffing Zimmerman. Though they are longer, we also found many of the Cornerstones of Freedom books to be wonderful. There are a number of them including The Story of the Lincoln Memorial by Natalie Miller, Arlington National Cemetery by R. Conrad Stein, and others.

On the White House: Our favorite was The Story of the White House by Kate Waters. It has photos rather than illustrations but was written well enough to keep the attention of all my children. We also really enjoyed Where Is the White House by Megan Stine, which is a longer picture book with black and white illustrations. Other good books include The White House by Mary Firestone, Woodrow, the White House Mouse by Peter W. Barnes, The House That George Built by Suzanne Slade, and The White House by Karen Latchana Kenney.

Our Top 3 Favorite Guide Books

Official Guide to the Smithsonian, 4th Edition
Official Guide to the Smithsonian, 4th Edition

Before we left for our trip we read about a different museum each night using the Official Guide to the Smithsonian by Smithsonian Institution. It provides a brief history of the museum and has a few pages about the featured pieces in each museum and includes colorful photographs. My children were excited when they recognized items in the museums they had seen in this guide. After we read about each museum, we would then watch the Student Orientation video on YouTube about the museum. (You can see one of the links for that series toward the end of this article.)

 
Click thumbnail to view full-size
A History Lover's Guide to Washington, D.C.: Designed for Democracy by Alison B Fortier  - Book images are from amazon .com.Washington on Foot, Fifth Edition: 24 Walking Tours and Maps of Washington, DC, Old Town Alexandria, and Takoma Park by John J. Protopappas
A History Lover's Guide to Washington, D.C.: Designed for Democracy by Alison B Fortier  - Book images are from amazon .com.
A History Lover's Guide to Washington, D.C.: Designed for Democracy by Alison B Fortier - Book images are from amazon .com.
Washington on Foot, Fifth Edition: 24 Walking Tours and Maps of Washington, DC, Old Town Alexandria, and Takoma Park by John J. Protopappas
Washington on Foot, Fifth Edition: 24 Walking Tours and Maps of Washington, DC, Old Town Alexandria, and Takoma Park by John J. Protopappas

A History Lover's Guide to Washington, D.C.: Designed for Democracy by Alison B Fortier provides the information that a good tour guide would share. The information is interesting and it is quick to read. Unfortunately I did not find Washington on Foot: 24 Walking Tours and Maps of Washington, DC, Old Town Alexandria, and Takoma Park by John J. Protopappas until the end of our trip when we were browsing through one of the gift shops. I flipped through the book and then wrote down the title because it looks like it has great ideas on easy walks and includes what yo should notice along the way.

Our Favorite YouTube Videos

Best Brief Overview Video

Of all the videos we watched, the Expedia video provided the best overview of what we'd be seeing in Washington, D.C.

Expedia Washington, D.C.

Smithsonian Videos

Before our trip, we read about a different museum or location each day and watched a short video on the museum. We loved the series by the Smithsonian that was created to prepare students for their visit to the museums. They highlighted some of the main sites of the museum along with providing additional history and areas of interest. They have videos on multiple museums and the zoo. Below is one of many of the videos they have created and posted.

Smithsonian Student Orientation Videos

DC Trip Hacks

We found the DC Trip Hacks series to be helpful in providing lots of practical tips. Below is one of many videos they have posted.

My kids loved watching the full video of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (This is just the trailer.)

They also loved watching the full video of National Treasure. (This is just the trailer.)

Looking for More Travel Tips?

Find out my "I wish I had known ahead of time..." tips, full itinerary, & more at my page Grand Canyon on a Budget with Kids. I've included our schedule for our trip and all the helpful tips I found out ahead of time or learned afterward! Also included are our favorite children's books, guide books, and YouTube videos we used while preparing for our trip.

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    • iijuan12 profile imageAUTHOR

      iijuan12 

      4 months ago from Florida

      Thank you so much for the kind comment! I really appreciate it!

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      4 months ago from UK

      As a parent of four (now grown up) kids, I really appreciated this article. For any family planning a trip like this, your article is extremely thorough and helpful, packed with tips on how to make best use of time and money.

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